It’s afternoon, and a long-overdue break in the wintry weather. We’re walking with Tilly along the wild Atlantic shore of our island, South Uist, from Tipperton to the small island of Orasay, reaching there at low tide and turning back for home before the tide turns too, and cuts us off.
The beach slopes up gently from the sea – which, today, is unusually calm. At low tide the beach is wide – the white sand dense and hard, shining with wet and speckled with shells. At the head of the beach, the strandline is marked by a deep band of litter, stretching in an unbroken line fro mile after mile : shredded seaweed – the dismembered limbs of kelp ; the plastic detritus of humanity, and here or there the rotting corpse of a dead seal. (Tilly is certain to find these – and certain to require a bath immediately we get home!) The beach is crowned by a narrow margin of sand-dune, stabilized by the roots of the marram grass, the long waving stems of which shelter the grassy-sandy track we are following.
Mid-way, the track diverts briefly away from the shore, passing through a field. The machair grassland of these west side of Uist is a rare and internationally-renown ecosystem and habitat, the creation and maintenance of which is thanks to human activity – traditional small-scale subsistence agriculture, known here as crofting. An annual dressing of well-rotted seaweed, brought up from the beach, and the manure from grazing animals, maintains sufficient fertility to greatly enhance productivity, and in particular it supports arable crops, which in turn (if harvested by tradition means) supports bird species which elsewhere have become endangered. The soil, being light and free-draining, supports a grass sward which doesn’t easily puddle or poach, and thus provides ideall conditions for over-wintering of livestock. Unsurprisingly, then, this field is stocked with sheep and cattle. Well, sheep, certainly, but cattle must have only recently been moved off elsewhere – judging from the multitude of very wet cow pats scattered about the field.
Other than these general observations concerning cow-pats, and the need to pace and pick our steps so as to avoid treading in any of them, there is no reason to them any particular attention, least of that particular cow pat, well to the side of the track. But for some reason I do.
At first sight, it’s just a small flat pebble lying on an especially sloppy wet cow pat. Like a piece of slate rounded and smoothed in flowing or tumbling water. But that’s where the item in question moves from sub-conscious thought to active engagement …
There’s no slate in Uist (except fragments around buildings), and no other rocks that break down to flat shapes like that. So, curiosity piqued, and without even pausing to look closely, I pluck the item from its soft cushion and – finding a small puddle to wash it in … It’s a fifty pence coin, somewhat discoloured, but, all the same, fifty pennies from heaven!
You see what I have to put up with? It’s not just Tilly that needs a thorough wash when we get home! J just cannot be trusted to come home without needing his clothes or his body needing a deep-clean!
I’m making soup. A whatever’s-in-the-garden soup – today’s random combination.
Potatoes lifted in autumn and stored in crates. Parsnips and carrots dug just earlier this morning. Curly kale picked fresh from the garden – so hardy, it continues to grow new leaves regardless of the winter weather. And leeks : thank heavens for the onion family – theres’s one for every season
Dicing and slicing, J steals away chunks to eat raw: the aroma and taste are so bound up with the idea of winter, the memories and associations, with scenes from Silas Marner or Under The Greenwood Tree. Or my own childhood. Me too, says J.
Winter foods. Grown slowly, accumulating memories of the passing seasons, memories released and relived in the digging, cleaning, preparing, cooking – and eating. We take time. We find time. The more we give, the more we get back. Slow-food is Time-food – and Time’s an ingredient we’ll never find on the supermarket shelves.
There is a richness, a completeness, a peace and fulfillment in winter foods. Thank heavens for seasons!
Thank heavens for Denise’s Slow Soup!